Four years ago, developer Tower Investments unveiled an ambitious plan to turn a rural elk farm into a vibrant commercial center for biotech jobs.
Today, construction has not begun on the 2,325-acre property called Elk Run in Pine Island. There are few signs of progress at the site north of Rochester as the latest set of deadlines approach.
The company slated to construct the first building in Elk Run's biobusiness park said Tower hasn't informed it when to start work there. The deadline to start construction is Aug. 15.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Transportation hasn't started construction on four frontage roads that would connect Elk Run with a new Hwy. 52 interchange. That's because the department is still waiting for Tower to fulfill certain goals, an official said.
"Is it frustrating for all the project partners that it's taking this long? Sure," said Terry Ward, manager of MnDOT's Elk Run Interchange Project.
Geoff Griffin, Elk Run's project manager, and John Pierce, a vice president with Tower Investments, did not respond to calls and e-mails asking for comment.
City of Pine Island officials were hopeful the biobusiness park would bring high-paying biotech jobs to the rural community 65 miles southeast of Minneapolis. Based on existing agreements, Tower is supposed to start construction by Aug. 15 on the first building and the city of Pine Island aimed to have 20 bioscience jobs at Elk Run by Jan. 1, 2013.
If the project falls short of job-creation goals, Pine Island would have to pay financial penalties to the Department of Transportation.
Jeremy Thomas, senior project manager for Mendota Heights-based R.J. Ryan Construction, said it would probably take two to three months to construct the 50,400-square-foot building. Thomas said that based on the current timeline, the building would "probably not" open in August as originally anticipated.
"We're just waiting to hear from them," Thomas said.
The delay is yet another setback for Elk Run, a project that would include a biobusiness park, a wellness community, housing and other commercial space. Critics have panned the highly publicized development for its delays.
Pine Island's City Administrator Abraham Algadi called R.J. Ryan's comments a "fair assessment of the situation." If Tower does not meet its Aug. 15 construction deadline, Algadi said he would recommend that the City Council and all the project partners revisit prior agreements and discuss realistic goals, based on the current economic environment.
"At the end of the day, the project will move forward," Algadi said.
At first, Tower blamed the recession for some of the delays. Construction was initially expected to begin in mid-2008. The developer's latest estimate was for the first building to open at the end of August.
Now, other officials involved with the project are looking for answers from biotech guru Steven Burrill, who pledged to raise a $1 billion fund to support biotech businesses and development at Elk Run.
Last September, Burrill said he was close to securing the money from a sovereign wealth fund. Three months later, he said the fund hadn't been closed yet. He did not return calls for comment this week.
Algadi speculated that Tower may be waiting for Burrill to raise the money before constructing the first building.
Meanwhile, MnDOT said it won't start the construction on the frontage roads connecting Elk Run to the interchange until it sees some capital fundraising from Tower and Burrill. The frontage roads are a part of a larger $34.6 million interchange project.
"Obviously, times are tough economically," Ward said. "I don't think anyone can underestimate the challenges and difficulty with raising that type and size of capital fund."
On Friday, Algadi said Tower had not returned his calls. He believes Tower and Burrill are still working on raising money for the $1 billion fund.
"I am not concerned that they are not answering or replying," Algadi said.
Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712